Wired has a short but charming article on the recent discovery, by researchers at South Africa’s Wits University, that dung beetles have an interesting method of thermoregulation.
Those of you who are geeks probably already know that dung beetles got their name due to their dietary preference for, well, dung. (I was going to say “fecal matter,” but that seems a bit too academic for this post.) Some species live in the dung, others bury it, but the most famous ones, the ones we’ve all seen in pictures, transport their food source by compacting it into a little ball and rolling it back to a nest site. This group of dung beetle species is called — wait for it — rollers.
Rollers engage in something called the orientation dance, in which the beetles climb on top of their dung ball in order to get a better view of their surroundings and figure out where to roll the ball next. What the Wit University researchers noticed, while observing this orientation dance, was that the beetles climbed up on their dung balls more often when the ground was hot.
Which led to the following Wired headline:
Study: Dung beetles cool their heels atop balls of poo
Best of all was how the researchers checked their hypothesis. How can you be sure the beetles are cooling their heels on their poo balls? Why, you fit them with tiny little silicone boots!
I am not making this up. But I am easily imagining who got stuck with that job — it had to be some poor graduate students. On the positive side, they’re guaranteed to have one of the best conversational ice breakers of all time: “So what do you do?” “Oh, I fit little silicone boots onto the legs of dung beetles.”
It worked, though. Boot-wearing beetles climbed up on their dung balls less often than their sartorially-disadvantaged peers. The beetles are indeed using their poo balls for more than just food.